Saturday Night’s Children: Kevin Nealon (1986-1995)
Saturday Night Live has been home to over a hundred cast members throughout the past 36 years. In our column Saturday Night’s Children, we present the history, talent, and best sketches of one SNL cast member each week for your viewing, learning, and laughing pleasure.
Kevin Nealon might not have been the biggest SNL star of his era, but competing isn’t necessary when you’re the cast’s tall weirdo-in-residence. His deadpan absurdity and all-American newscaster voice made him the closest thing the show had to a center of gravity since Chevy Chase in season one, and from his time as the gruff Tarzan to his segments as Mr. Subliminal at the Update desk, it was Nealon who could always be counted on to lend a drop of much needed peculiarity and wry nonchalance to an otherwise mainstream and outspoken ensemble of stars like Phil Hartman, Dana Carvey, and later Adam Sandler and Chris Farley. Nealon spent almost ten years on SNL and used his love for quirky, meta, performance art-style comedy to help usher the show from the late 80s and into a new age, and he’s never stopped showing up in films of his SNL friends since.
Nealon grew up in Bridgeport, Connecticut and developed an interest in performing first as a guitarist and singer in high school, then evolved into comedy. He moved to Los Angeles after graduating from Fairfield’s Sacred Heart University with a marketing degree and worked as a bartender at the Improv while honing his stand-up skills on the side, citing the absurdity of Albert Brooks, Andy Kaufman, and Steve Martin as his inspiration. His first big break came with an invitation to perform on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in 1984, where he did well enough to earn a post-performance interview (you can watch his performance here). Thanks to a recommendation from fellow SNL newcomer Dana Carvey, Lorne Michaels hired Nealon as a featured player two years later after having fired nearly the entire 1985-1986 cast. Nealon was promoted to repertory status the following year.
Nealon’s mix of deadpan mastery and offbeat delivery helped him earn plenty of host-like roles but skewer them in strange and silly ways, like the talk radio host Tony Trailer, “Instant Coffee” host Big Bill Smith, and Bob Waltman of “The Bob Waltman Special,” where he throws the camera a doofy smile every time he brings his celebrity interviewees to tears. Other recurring characters included Frank Gannon P.I., Jimmy the doorman (with Rob Schneider as Frank), Sammy from “Couple of Sammies” with Dana Carvey, and the Schwarzenegger-worshipping Franz also with Carvey in “Pumping Up with Hans and Franz.” Including their 1999 reprise, the weightlifting duo made a whopping 21 SNL appearances.
Nealon impersonated almost 50 different celebrities during his run including Larry King, Sam Donaldson, Jay Leno, Rudolph Giuliani, George Hamilton, Kenny Rogers, Michael Bolton, and Elvis Presley, but his brightest moments were spent as Weekend Update anchor from 1991-1994, where he closed with the catchphrase “I’m Kevin Nealon, and that’s news to me.” On his Update approach, Nealon said in Live from New York:
My approach to it was more like Chevy Chase — you know, keep it dry and more of a straight newscaster, and as far as the audience laughing, I think everybody wants the audience to laugh, but if you think it’s funny yourself — even if it doen’t get a laugh at dress — you leave it in there because to people at home it’s funny. I’m not from the school of like broad comedy, throw-it-in-your-face stuff. I think the broadest thing I ever did was “Hans and Franz.” You know, mine is just put it on the plate; if they want it, they’ll take it.
Before taking over the spot, Nealon appeared on Update numerous times when Dennis Miller anchored and even once acted as anchor of a segment-within-a-segment in 1990 called “News from 10 Feet Away,” which sums up Nealon’s dry, meta-loving Update style well: “The people here seem as if they’re ready to respond to something, almost like they’re ready to laugh. And yet there is no laughter.” (Side note: My favorite Nealon Update moment is when he makes a very long Emergency Broadcast beep noise, but I couldn’t find a clip online.)
Nealon decided to leave the show in 1995 along with at least ten other cast members who were fired or quit over the course of the season. Though his starring roles on short-lived ABC sitcoms Champs (1996) and Hiller and Diller (1997-1998) didn’t gain much mainstream success, Nealon has enjoyed a long career of small roles in the films of his SNL collaborators, including David Spade’s Joe Dirt and Sandler films Happy Gilmore, The Wedding Singer, Little Nicky, Anger Management, and You Don’t Mess with the Zohan. On TV, Nealon’s appeared on The Larry Sanders Show, 3rd Rock from the Sun, Monk, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and most notably as the stoner accountant Doug Wilson on Weeds since 2005, currently in its eighth season.
Apart from acting, Nealon has also hosted other shows including The Conspiracy Zone on Spike, Amazing America on The Discovery Channel, and World’s Funniest Commercials on TBS. He also made frequent appearances on Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown and published a book In 1998 called Yes, You’re Pregnant, But What About Me? A longtime vegetarian and animal rights activist, Nealon’s spent years working with groups like PETA, In Defense of Animals, the Amanda Foundation, and more. In addition to his role on Weeds, Nealon also has a Showtime special called Whelmed, But Not Overly premiering August 4th, followed by a nationwide tour this fall.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.